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Gene machines

Gene machines

Scientists have long known of links between disease and genetics. But with the advent of fast, inexpensive genetic sequencing systems, we can now actually put this knowledge to work and create tailored treatments based on information extracted from individual patient genomes.

A front-runner in this emerging field is Geneseeq Technology Inc. Launched in 2008 by CEO Dr. Yang Shao, then a doctoral student at the University of Toronto, Geneseeq has built a DNA sequencing system that, using patient blood samples, can pinpoint genetic mutations known to give rise to specific diseases, particularly cancer. It uses that information to both diagnose suspected cancer patients and also recommend which treatment combinations would offer each individual the best chance for recovery. And it completes the job in five days.

Headquartered in Toronto, with a U.S. office and a large lab in Nanjing, China, the company’s main backers are a group of Chinese venture funds. To date, it has sequenced about 150,000 patient samples, focused on the Chinese market.

“A lot of people get cancer, and they can spend a lot of time trying to find the best therapy,” says Dr. Shao. “We aim for the best efficacy at the least toxicity and we aim to do it fast, so the patient doesn’t have to wait.”

GeneYouIn Inc., also based in Toronto, takes a slightly different approach. It uses genetic sequencing to zero in on the optimum medication for treatment of a range of diseases after diagnosis.

Just as disease is often rooted in genetics, the way people respond to medication is, too. That’s why patients with the same affliction who are prescribed the same pill can see different results. GeneYouIn decodes a patient’s DNA to understand which treatment will work for them, which can produce better results with less trial and error.

Another key difference, instead of focusing on patients and their physicians, GeneYouIn works with insurance companies and employers—entities that pay for healthcare in many jurisdictions— offering their service as a benefit to employees.

“We can show that patients [who receive our service] return to work faster,” says GeneYouIn’s founder and chief science officer Dr. Ruslan Dorfman.

The company has clients in Canada, Europe and the U.S. In this country, Sun Life Financial, GE Canada and several other corporations offer the service to employees as part of their benefits plan.

Companies like GeneYouIn and Geneseeq are “making the healthcare system more efficient,” says Bettina Hamelin, president and chief executive of Ontario Genomics, a government-funded organization promoting innovation in genomics. “The services they provide give patients a better chance to get the best treatment in a shorter period of time.”